Know Your Rights!

March 29, 2010

When I was 17 years old, I used to work at my mother’s dry cleaning business located in what was then the troublesome Plaza-Midwood area.  On this particular Saturday evening, after closing my mother’s shop, I asked my best friend to pick me up so that we could attend a typical high school “let’s hang out in the Wal-Mart parking lot” extravaganza.   I recall my friend being tired, so he asked me to drive his highly decorated Honda Accord which in high school was a rarity. His car and window tint were black, rims were shiny, and the engine was V-6, which we all know was top of the line back in the 90s.

While driving the car on Central Avenue near Saigon Square, a cop car pulled up behind me. He flashed his blue lights and turned on those dreadful sirens that we see so often on an episode of Cops.  I remember thinking to myself, “I wasn’t speeding was I? Why’d he pull me over?”  When I finally pulled to a stop, I noticed the officer didn’t step out of his car. In fact, we sat there waiting … for at least five minutes. My best friend looked over at me and said, “should we get out?” I turned back to him and said “Are you crazy! Let’s just put our hands in the air so they don’t shoot.” I know I know…so naïve!  As we sat in the car with our hands in the air, four additional cop cars pulled up.  Then over the loud speaker, the officer says, “Get out of the car with your hands in the air!” When we got out, both my friend and I tasted pavement for the first time ever and were put in handcuffs.

On that particular day, the police officers were dispatched to find a Black Honda Accord that was stolen in the area by two Asian males. Unluckily, we happened to fit the description.  The entire ordeal happened so fast. Not knowing what our recourse was, I remember feeling violated and embarrassed for being accused of something without an adequate explanation. Kids around the nation face similar interactions with law enforcement. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is no exception.

My specific project this past week at the Mississippi Center for Justice was to prepare a presentation to educate middle and high school students on their basic rights, specifically when dealing with law enforcement.  Along with my fellow classmate, Robert Ingalls and two University of Chicago Law Students, our group was asked to prepare a video presentation that would later be posted on YouTube so that youth around the country would be able to learn about their basic rights free of charge.

Throughout the week, we met with many people who shared their own stories of police harassment in the area.  It was interesting to hear these stories and understand why many people in the Mississippi Gulf Coast had a negative perception of law enforcement. In previous weeks, the Mississippi Center for Justice asked other law schools to prepare presentations to address the concerns of citizens and equip them with an educational foundation of their basic rights.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, our group also had an opportunity to speak with Administrative and Court officials on their perspectives as well. We met with Judge Felicia Dunn Burkes of the Gulfport Municipal County Courthouse and the Gulfport District Attorney, Cono Carrana. The message was clear: “It is important for an Individual to know their Basic Rights. In fact, it is their duty. However, they must know to exercise them responsibly.”

In running with this theme, our group decided to follow up previous “Know Your Rights” presentations with additional information on how an individual can exercise their rights responsibly. Focusing on deference to law enforcement, we wanted to convey to the public that the fight is won in the courtroom and not on the streets. In our video, we concentrated on the right way to handle interactions with the police and provided individuals with remedial options in the form of police complaints and community involvement.

At the end of the week, we presented our video for the GURLS4Life (Growing Up Responsibly to Lady Status) organization in Moss Point, Mississippi.  The presentation was a success and we received positive feedback for our efforts.

Personally, I am glad I decided to spend my spring break in the Mississippi Gulf Coast and work for the Center for Justice.  As a part-time evening student at CSL, I work 40 hours at a Corporate Immigration Law Practice during the day and take 12 hours of class in the evening. In addition to this hectic schedule, I am constantly busy with extracurricular activities in the form of my personal relationships, church and exercise.  In short, my life is very structured and I often have to keep my end goals in sight. Corporate Immigration work and law school classes have a beginning, middle and end.  Although it can be tough sometimes, I know that if I stay focused long enough, I can push through.

This past week, I realized that problems in a community, whether it be police interaction, Katrina housing issues, or race/class struggles, can be a longer process that offers no quick fix. The Community attorneys at the Mississippi Center for Justice come to work day after day not knowing whether their time dedicated to a certain community issue will provide them with a rewarding feeling of accomplishment or a disappointing setback in their efforts to solve practical problems. After this week, I have been extremely humbled by the Mississippi Center for Justice’s persistent and dedicated work in the Gulf Coast.

I now come back to my routine schedule that honestly has provided me with a comfortable life. I intend to make time in this schedule in the future to help others in our immediate community because the feeling of accomplishment is far more rewarding than I envisioned.

-Sang Shin

PS – All of you have to watch our video! Kudos to Robert for all his work on it.


Track 3-Community Benefits–”sprinkling showers begin”

March 26, 2010

As we ended day 3 yesterday, we prepared for what day 4 had in store.  Little did we know that day 4 would be packed with new information, great resources, and 2 telephone conferences that reached several states away.

Day 4 began with a telephone conference with Jason Reece, from the Kirwan Institute (Ohio) which focuses on research centered around racial issues and structural racism within communities.  Jason provided more concrete information regarding things in the community to consider and pay special attention to when preparing to structure a community benefits agreement while in the beginning stages of assessing the community.

Gail Suchman, an environmental law attorney in New York, who has experience in green design and community responsible investing issues, helped to solidify the procedures, over-arching goals, and focus areas for beginning the community coalitions to advocate for community benefits and navigated our group through the process of the CBA, and concluded by addressing issues that may/can arise even during the actual drafting of the CBA.

Taking what we had learned from the previous days and from the two telephone conferences today, we captured pictures and video footage of the “lack of community opportunities” in the Gulfport area–ranging from issues involving financial stability, housing, accessibility to necessities such as affordable grocery stores, health care facilities, and pharmacies (just to name a few–there are many community opportunities that are non-existent depending on what side of the port or corridors you happen to be on).

After today, I firmly believe that if CBAs are effective in other cities, Gulfport is no exception to the rule.  The port expansion project could contribute the same amount of money to the Gulfport community, as the port project is anticipated to costs, and Gulfport citizens would still have major needs that were not met.  Reality in Gulfport is revealing of lots of immediate needs.

As day 5 draws very near, there remains a desire to follow this project in the weeks, months and years to come along with hope that the citizens of Gulfport some day reap benefits that began to take shape this week.  Track 3 has started the process for the “rain drops” to find the ground in Gulfport!

-Carrie


and you thought you had it bad…

March 26, 2010

First off, it must be mentioned that the Charlotte Law gang defeated the U of Chicago team’s Tier 1 butts at trivia night. Despite the answers being rigged, it was nice to be cheering and seeing them sitting there in defeat.

As for Biloxi and the surrounding areas, this has been one of the most eye-opening experiences ever. We have all seen the scenes of New Orleans on TV and its aftermath. Slowly the MSM have forgotten about the people in the Gulf and the complete destruction of their lives after the storm. It’s close to 5 years later, and while attention still largely focuses on NOLA and their rebuilding and Super Bowl, nobody mentions Biloxi, Waveland, or Gulfport where a large part of the storm hit including the eye of Katrina.

Previous posts have discussed what MEMA Cottages are.  They were essentially meant to be a temporary fix to the housing situation after Katrina destroyed people’s homes.  MEMA has offered to let people purchase the cottages and permanently fix the cottage to the land.  However, the city passed a series of ordinances that create loopholes and are very discriminatory towards cottage owners.  This is what the MCJ and my group have been working on for the past several days.

Riding around Biloxi and the surrounding counties for the past 3 days we’ve seen some cottages that have been permanently placed or a new home built in its place.  Outside of this there are still streets reduced to a house or two and multiple concrete foundations where the water tore the house away.  In between, we’ve met cottage owners that have told us their stories of trying to keep their cottages.  One man, a disabled gentleman, was told by the city he has until the end of the month to move his cottage to a trailer park outside the city limits where he will pay several hundred dollars a month to keep his cottage.  He asked if he could keep the cottage on his brother’s property where it currently is or to move it to property he owns in another county and he was again denied.  His disability interferes with his ability to work and the city wants him to move outside the city and pay money he can’t afford to live somewhere he doesn’t want to!

Another gentleman, had his cottage and was prepared to purchase it when he was told it would cost him $15,000 to raise the cottage about 3 inches. At the next cottage, a man, who successfully had his cottage raised, also said he was charged an outrageous price to have his cottage raised.  This was after the contractor pocketed the money and ran off leaving the subcontractor to do the work for free!  So now we have a case where the city is passing discriminatory ordinances and contractors are committing fraud.

The rabbit hole deepens when it’s discovered that some cottage owners are being forced to leave because of a 160 foot rule.  In this case, all neighbors within 160 feet of a cottage could write in and just say I object to this cottage and it would have to be removed.  Reading the objections, you see a lot of legalese in the letters bringing the assumption that a lot of these residents had help.

A lot of this experience has been very humbling.  It’s also made me think very hard about whats been going on in Mississippi.  The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) allocated $13,348,427 to the State of Mississippi for activities benefiting persons who have recently become homeless or at-risk of becoming homeless. The state has issued several grants to housing developments including the Mississippi Development Authority which provides temporary financial assistance who would become homeless but for the assistance.  Assuming these people who are on the verge of losing their cottages have no place left to go and will therefore be displaced and homeless it would make sense that ARRA money should go to helping these people find some stability.

This trip has been extraordinary and troubling at the same time.  I wish I could stay and see our project through to the end.

–Rick


And Then There Was One…

March 25, 2010

With just one day left of our Biloxi experience, this week has been one of teamwork, collaboration, and learning; exposure to a colossal tragedy that happened five years ago and that still isn’t fixed today, and for me, exposure to a culture so different and unfamiliar to me that I felt like I was in a foreign country. However, the experience was a good and enriching one, and will only make the return to my end of the country a more experienced and understanding one.

As a “Yankee,” and a New Yorker in particular, I was apprehensive about coming to Mississippi.
In hindsight, it was the best way I could have spent my Spring Break.

Before coming to Mississippi, I knew that there was, to some extent, still evidence of Katrina damage. What I didn’t understand was just how much damage there really was. As we wrap up our fourth day of working in the community – talking to people who have received government assistance in some form or another, collaborating on different ways for the Mississippi Center for Justice to go about helping these people even more, and putting together bits of media to show to everyone else involved in some way at the Center – I now understand that Mississippi, the Gulf Coast, and America in general is not anywhere near done dealing with the repercussions of the monster that was Katrina.

As I briefly reflect on a week’s worth of experiences, a few events stick out most in my mind:

While interviewing a man who lived quite far from the ocean, I found seashells in his front yard both buried in mud and sitting on the grass. How much water must have covered the land for seashells to be brought hundreds and hundreds of yards – maybe even over a mile – to this man’s front lawn? As I couldn’t see the ocean from any direction at his house, I’d imagine it must have been almost biblical.

While interviewing a man who rode out the storm, he told us that he sat in his living room and watched as the water levels rose ten feet every three minutes. He said he watched other houses float past his at probably forty miles per hour. He also said that he wouldn’t wish his experience on anyone, even someone he hated to death. How frightening could that have been for him? To watch his entire world go under – literally go under water – as he could do nothing about it?

While interviewing a third man, he told us that he was being forced out of his government-funded home because of certain laws and ordinances that were recently put in place, and that he only had till the end of the month to pack up and move. He lost his first home in Katrina, and now this home because of government regulations. How many hundreds – even thousands – of people have similar or worse stories to tell about their inability to buy or stay in a home?

These experiences are truly unforgettable ones as I haven’t seen anything like it before, and have never talked to people with experiences like this before in my life. For this reason, I am grateful that I was given such an opportunity.

Before I came here I really thought New Yorkers were the toughest people in the country – the rough-around-the-edges, “hardass,” straightforward type, and I don’t think I could back down from that opinion in a hundred years. Still, I’m willing to say that the state of Mississippi gives us a run for our money. They have encountered and endured something that New Yorkers never will, and as a result they found a sense of community that is hard to come by. They are a people that are grateful for what they have, and do not dwell on what they’ve lost. I cannot even begin to describe the full extent of what I’ve learned and discovered this week, but the most important point I have come out of this with is a whole new and genuine respect for the state of Mississippi, and in particular the people of Mississippi. They possess a hardy, strong, compassionate, and loving personality, and have found a place in my heart that no state I’ve visited before ever has.

–Steph


The Story of MEMA Cottages: Hurricane Katrina, Property Law come to life

March 25, 2010

Neighbors sent objections to City of Gulfport when resident applied to make the cottage permanent.

Since beginning with MCJ on Monday, I have logged nearly 500 miles on my car—all by winding through the rebuilding neighborhoods of Mississippi‘s Gulf Coast. Partnering with new friends from the University of Chicago Law School—Caitlin, Yulia and Kyle, we set out to visit nearly 30 residents in the greater Biloxi-Gulfport area who received MEMA cottages after Hurricane Katrina. These originally were units issued (via lottery system to 2800 households) as a temporary fix to the local housing shortage, but in three years time, have begun to feel like home to many of the recipients here.

Hence, the reason for our visit. We were curious (as was MCJ for their ongoing fair housing advocacy work) what these residents faced these days with respect to their cottage. Had they rebuilt a new permanent residence on their property and so no longer needed the MEMA cottage? Or was rebuilding just too costly and so their best option is to keep the cottage? In that case, had they talked to MEMA about purchasing the cottage (for as little as a $300 in some cases) and what would need to be done to transition the unit from temporary (still on wheels and exterior pipes/electrical hookup) to permanent (solid foundation and wheels removed)?

While our core mission was to check out the cottages and meet the folks who lived there, our law school brains were churning with issues of property law, local ordinances and discrimination as we learned more about the MEMA cottages. Earlier in the week, Andrew Canter (MCJ attorney who leads much of the ongoing MEMA cottages work) briefed us on the unique challenges that cottage residents presently face—as MEMA looks to eliminate temporary cottages by the end of this year. That is, residents can buy the cottage and pay the costs to make it permanent or they can give it back.

With impending deadlines looming, most cottage residents are trying to navigate what to do next. The pressure is real. One resident, Mr. Elder, must move his cottage to a trailer park next week because it doesn’t meet neighborhood covenant restrictions; he will leave the land he has lived on for nearly 50 years. Even in March 2010, lives continue to be impacted dramatically by Hurricane Katrina and the evolution of its recovery effort. While many residents in this part of Mississippi received significant aid immediately following the storm, those solutions were never intended to be permanent—and so as infrastructure returns and city planning boards recreate neighborhoods, cottage residents are among those entering another phase of post-Katrina stress: fighting for a permanent residence.

Any predicament a resident faces with a cottage requires money and a certain amount of savvy—those who can’t rebuild may not be able to navigate the process to keep their MEMA cottage and thus, may face displacement once again. As you can imagine, those least able to rebuild and those most in need of keeping their cottage are the disabled, the elderly, those with children, etc. I could write volumes on this subject—but these are the folks who need representation the most and often those MCJ assists. Issues surrounding the misappropriation of funds, housing, jobs, education, and discrimination still pervade recovery efforts. While Katrina made all residents in this area incredibly vulnerable, only a portion has had the means to return to a sense of normalcy since 2005. There still remain a good deal more who are unsure what their future holds and thus, the work here on the Gulf Coast must continue.

Our work to understand the situation of MEMA cottage residents is only a portion of that. We (as part of the MCJ’s larger effort) want to know what can be done to help these residents achieve some sense of normalcy again. We have talked to these residents, heard their story and gathered data—all of which will be used in ongoing advocacy work by the MCJ, including a professional economic study being done on land values (with respect to the permanent cottages) and a short advocacy video (to be posted later this week). While 5 days is only a blip on the radar screen of post-Katrina recovery efforts, we certainly contributed in a small way to the work being done here.

Selfishly, this week has been incredibly indulgent for me as I get to see what public interest work can be. It is both humbling and challenging to go out to new places, hear the stories of the unrepresented and then think through how the law applies to their situations—what can be done to bring them more justice, and a bit more hope.

– Julia


Day 3–mid-day update from “Making It Rain”

March 24, 2010

Well, as we continue to tread our way through the massive amounts of information we are hoping to sort through and obtain this week, our storm continues to “brew.”

Today we spent the majority of our morning holding discussions with Attorney Dreher and the impact the port project has on the local shrimpers. We learned some interesting things! First, there is a 1949 recorded deed that indicates a “permanent fishing industry to be relocated to the northwesterly portion of the premises” (referring to the port area).

Additionally, we learned that there are “settlement talks” for the shrimpers interest; however, there are several rising theories as what will happen or can happen should the settlement plan bottom out, and if there is any course of sustainable action on the shrimpers behalf.

During the planning stages and currently, there remain different ideas on what the best plan of action would be to accommodate the shrimpers. Some talks have centered around building a new pier to house the shrimpers alone, to other projects such as move the shrimpers away from the port and further down the east coast line.

Ultimately, we added another piece to the puzzle today—how do you protect the current local industries, such as the shrimpers and other small businesses located along the port area?

For more information on the port project, look at the following: http://www.portofthefuture.com
-Carrie and Tracy


Day Two-continuing the search for community benefits

March 24, 2010

Track 3′s day began back at the MCJ Center. We discussed an overview of what we discovered yesterday while compiling codes for the economic factors that will be imported into the mapping software to generate numbers and comparisons of the present poverty and disinvestment in the Gulfport area.

After our brief overview, our group met with Reilly Morse, the MCJ attorney and supervisor for our project. Reilly discussed the remaining goals/events for this week and then we navigated our way through a power point presentation regarding the current layout of the port, and the potential diagrams for the expected expansion. It was only the beginning of day 2, and we already felt that we were running out of time.

Our group’s next task was to review a previous Community Benefits report that was prepared in conjunction with a project in Biloxi and to review the highlights of how other cities and states have handled community benefits analysis and planning. Some of the cities that currently have CBA (community benefit agreements) in place for various projects include New York City; New Haven, Connecticut; Los Angeles, California, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Although each city has CBAs regarding specific projects, each CBA brings its own benefit negotiations and needs of the surrounding community with it, so no two are exactly alike.

Our afternoon consisted of an interview with Jeff Bounds, a developer/planner in the Gulfport area. We had a chance to discuss the potential economic impact, disparate impact, and goals of the Gulfport expansion plan with Jeff. He set out the plans for the expansion project in what is classified as a “compartmentalizing” plan. Basically, the expansion plan is prepared to be completed in phases, so as to minimize the impact of the community. Although there is a long-term plan set out, it seems as though the short-term effects and concerns of citizens have not been completely sorted out.

Reilly and Jeff both explained that through the background work of surveys and interviews with the citizens of Gulfport, the overall concerns include air quality, health issues, and of course…noise impact. The Gulfport expansion project not only includes expanding the port itself by establishing a port expansion that is raised 25 feet above sea level, but also includes the construction of a major highway leading from Gulfport towards northern Mississippi. This highway will divide Gulfport directly through the middle of city. Overall, the highway portion of the expansion project will impact the Gulfport area tremendously. There is a great potential that the transverse streets will be blocked, and the connection from one side of the city to the other, completely shut down. Exactly what the citizens of Gulfport are concerned about.
Additionally, a new road, with new construction, includes increased noise levels and health concerns that can and likely will last years and decades from now.

Our team’s interview with Jeff was centered around grasping a better idea of what we want to know and our mission for Gulfport, including, but definitely not limited to, what benefits are available for the citizens right now; what benefits can the agency/advocates tap into to funnel part of this money back to the community immediately; what analysis has been performed regarding the impact of the entire expansion project on Gulfport; what has the city government, county government, and any other agency done or are they currently doing to make sure that the citizens of Gulfport are not in worse conditions after the expansion than they are now; what do the citizens of Gulfport really care about and view as the major problems for them?

So here is what we know at this point: the planning of the project recognizes that network connections are important and that the citizens of Gulfport should/need to be considered; the majority of eminent domain actions have already occurred for the “taking” of the land for the highway portion of the project (and we all know that process is “fair”); and the underlying issue in all of this—politics!

We left our afternoon on a brighter note—tomorrow we look forward to meeting with one of the attorneys that has been retained to represent the local shrimpers and evaluate their course of action to oppose the Gulfport expansion project and its impact on their jobs and livelihood. Later this week we will also be speaking with Jason Reece, a senior researcher from Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University. There is still a lot of work to be done on this project, and the impact of the port expansion is far from known. Reilly clarified today that we are the “forerunners” of many things to come regarding the structural racism and community benefits in the Gulfport area. With what information we have right now, we continue to strive to look for the even a small way to find assistance and reach out to the citizens of Gulfport.

Because Tracy and I are the only two CSL students on this project, we will continue to post updates for the remainder of this week regarding our project and developments.

I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of the CSL team at Mississippi this week. It is heartbreaking to see the shape of Biloxi and Gulfport as we approach the 5 year anniversary of Katrina. Every street is a reminder of the devastation these cities, but most importantly their citizens, have suffered and continued to endure. The compassion of the MCJ attorneys and their desire to make all things better for the citizens of Mississippi is catching. You can walk into the MCJ in the morning, and you know that your work is appreciated, even the smallest contributions, to their greater cause(s). When you leave at the end of the day, it still remains hard to find the words that express your desires to help, the current situation of the cities and citizens, and the feeling of helplessness that you have because you cannot make an immediate difference for them. I sincerely hope that CSL will continue to support the efforts of MCJ and their projects and consider expanding their pro bono work in conjunction with MCJ in the years to come.

–Carrie


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